Seniors & Aging

Classes and activities help keep Whatcom seniors sharp

When Mary Sadler retired 19 years ago, she found life without her job much more subdued than she expected. The Whatcom County resident, now in her 70s, had taken noncredit evening classes for fun while she was employed, so continuing in that vein seemed like a good idea.

She attended a meeting of the Academy for Lifelong Learning at Western Washington University, learned about the programs it offers, and has been a regular in academy classes since 1998.

“I’ve taken a broad range of subjects, including art appreciation, travel, science, geology and classes on the classics,” she says. “It keeps me sharp, involved and engaged. And the other students are interesting, intellectually curious people who I enjoy being around.”

The nonprofit academy keeps its class fees affordable, but enough to cover the cost of instructors and the rental of meeting places. A one-session, three-hour class costs $18, for example. Classes often meet away from Western’s campus, to avoid problems with campus parking.

The 25 courses per term are determined based on recommendations of two committees whose members find out what interests their audience. Instructors range from professors to local experts.

Mingle, explore, learn

Carolyn Leeper, 77, a writer who lives in Sudden Valley, says it’s so important for seniors to stay intellectually active, to get out of their homes and to socialize.

“For a long time I was a travel agent, and when I’d visit people in their homes I’d come across a lot of seniors who had just given up,” she says. “They lived alone, didn’t get out, and were sad and lonely. But if they had just gone to take a class, met some new people and done things, they would have had a completely different kind of life.”

Leeper has taken community college courses and recently self-published a book, “19 Remarkable Northwest Women.” It’s important to stay curious, she advises other seniors.

“You know you need ongoing learning if you haven’t been out of the house in a month and you don’t know what other people are doing,” she says. “Even if you’re retired and aren’t working on anything, stay curious about what’s going on.”

Another venue to feed one’s curiosity is Bellingham Senior Activity Center, which offers a wide range of wellness classes and other programs.

“Our presenters offer information on hearing loss, bone density and nutrition, and we have opportunities to play bridge and pinochle, do puzzles, and walk or hike with a group,” says Christy Bell, the center’s manager.

Other learning groups at the center include a book class, a memoir writing group, and a weekly discussion session in which the group chooses the topics.

The center is always on the lookout for new presenters to talk to its members, most of whom come to the center to stay active, engaged and healthy, Bell says. Whether they do so through tap dancing classes, Zumba, yoga, tai chi, Pilates, strength training or the Silver Sneakers exercise class, there’s a wide range of offerings, with many of them free.

“Even if you have to pay, a yoga class at our center is half of what it would be in the regular market,” Bell says.

Membership at the center costs $36 a year.

The center also serves a hot lunch each weekday, which gives seniors another opportunity to socialize.

“All the time we see people coming in who are new to the area or whose spouses recently passed away, and they come into the center for friendship,” Bell says. “We even have people who meet partners here.”

Some of them meet at the regular Tuesday afternoon dance, sparking budding romances and even weddings. The age range varies from 50 to 90, and the center is open Saturdays, too, so seniors who work during the week have an opportunity to visit.

Preserving life stories

Susan Browne, a creative writing instructor at Whatcom Community College’s Community Education program, says seniors account for a third to a half of the students in her memoir and fiction writing courses.

“I’ve found those students to be amazing people; very sharp, engaged in their communities and families, and with amazing memories,” she says. “They were producing weekly work and writing about things that happened 60 to 70 years ago.”

The level of productivity in her classes has a lot to do with group support, Browne says.

“Sometimes, just having that group energy helps you feel, ‘I can do this, I don’t have to be a professional writer to write my memoir,’” she says.

And while many students claim never to have written anything before, “they’re often producing really great, wonderful work,” Browne says. “A lot of times people don’t give themselves credit, or set their expectations too low. But it’s not necessary to have any writing experience at all to embark on a memoir.”

Any kind of group support can be beneficial for seniors, Browne says, whether it’s taking a class, connecting with people at Village Books, or finding a group at a local library branch.

“When you get that support, you see that everyone struggles with the same issues,” she says.